When Crystal Palace fell to defeat at Sheffield United in a tepid and lacklustre performance last month, it became clear that change was required.
The success that the rigid 4-4-2 had given Roy Hodgson during his two-year reign appeared to be receding. There was once so much defensive solidity and potency on the counter-attack when the Eagles played in that formation, particularly away from home, but at Bramall Lane there was no sign of either of the two things that have defined the positive side of the 72-year-old’s tenure. Even during the opening day draw with Everton, the same underlying issues were beginning to show but to a lesser extent.
Against the Blades, there was little movement in all areas of the pitch, not least up front. Christian Benteke battled well when the ball was in his vicinity, but otherwise the Belgian produced the similar idle display with which Palace supporters have now become so familiar. The former Liverpool striker was not helped by the absence of creativity, the lack of runners from midfield and the general sense of his team being second-best, but the 28-year-old truly epitomised the uninspiring performance that produced barely a whimper of a scoring opportunity.
And so it was all the more damning that with Benteke withdrawn from the starting 11, the Eagles won their next two games. Out, too, came Max Meyer and Andros Townsend, whose productivity from the left and right respectively was beginning to wane. In came the more energetic Jeffrey Schlupp and Jordan Ayew who were pivotal in the victories against Manchester United and Aston Villa. The roles played by the incoming Cheikhou Kouyate and Gary Cahill cannot be understated either, even if the latter was fortunate to escape a red card against the Mancunians.
There were just six days between defeat in Sheffield and a first top-flight victory at Old Trafford since 1989, but the differences were unparalleled. A 4-5-1 formation meant Palace were more compact. They seemed better organised defensively – aided by Cahill’s communication – and counter-attacked with much more guile than the weekend prior.
Ultimately, they were ruthless. They still created very few chances, but how can you be expected to create loads away to Manchester United?
Jordan Ayew opened the scoring after Schlupp headed on a long Vicente Guaita kick. Patrick van Aanholt hammered the winner through David de Gea in added-time. United winger Daniel James had equalised just minutes before but there was little sense of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side turning the game around. That, to Hodgson, would have been particularly pleasing.
The wide players, Schlupp and Wilfried Zaha, were pushed higher up the following week when Palace dominated Villa, ultimately only winning 1-0 when the scoreline could feasibly have read upwards of four. If the visitors felt aggrieved by Kevin Friend booking Jack Grealish for diving instead of awarding Henri Lansbury’s goal, they should instead have been thankful that they were still in the game by that point.
The 4-3-3, with the left-footed Schlupp on the left wing and the right-footed Zaha on the right, gave Palace better width and balance than when they play with four across the middle. The extra man in central midfield meant one was always able to support the front three. James McArthur, offered a bit more freedom than usual, had his best game of the season to date.
When Hodgson opts to use the 4-4-2, Townsend and Meyer drift inside which compacts the middle of the pitch and vacates space out wide. That worked with the more attacking full-back pairing of Van Aanholt and Aaron Wan-Bissaka able to exploit the wide areas in the final third, but the more conservative Joel Ward does not advance forward as much as the Eagles academy graduate. Aside from his goal at Old Trafford, van Aanholt has been largely ineffective in attacking phases this season.
It is to Hodgson’s credit that he has tried something different, but it may be borne out of a summer he possibly, but privately, deems unacceptable. During his two years at Selhurst Park, the former England manager has been criticised for being stubborn and set in his ways, unwilling to change too much too frequently. He has a trusted core of players who are rarely dropped, even when it seems a spell on the sidelines during a poor run of form might be beneficial.
Hodgson had never made such drastic adjustments as to switch formation and make four changes to his starting line-up before the Manchester United game, but there is a sense that he now realises he must work with what he has. Perhaps a significant boost is that the Eagles’ squad is very versatile.
In an ideal world, Palace would have signed a like-for-like replacement for the departed Wan-Bissaka, someone better adept at exposing the space that is left out wide when Townsend moves inside. Palace also lost the more mobile Michy Batshuayi after last season’s loanee returned to Chelsea, and Hodgson undoubtedly wanted a new striker of a similar mould. Ayew can stretch a back line and has started the season well, but there is no evidence that he can score regularly enough to be considered the answer to the south Londoners’ long-term striking deficiencies.
Of the new signings, only Cahill has impressed enough to force his way into the team. “He is technically gifted,” Hodgson said of loan coup Victor Camarasa. It implied the Spaniard lacked the tenacity, versatility and endurance that makes the prototype Hodgson midfielder. It is similar to how Meyer was viewed this time last year and the German only became a regular towards the end of the season when the club’s Premier League status was all but secure.
The heavy defeat against Tottenham Hotspur should be viewed as nothing more than an anomaly. Recent history proves that Palace have only a few similar results every season, especially when the squad lacks some of its usual starters.
And so Hodgson switching back to a 4-4-2 for the two upcoming fixtures against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich City would be a surprise. There was proof in the Aston Villa performance that the three-man midfield gives Palace better balance and more options in possession. Supporters yearn for excitement and they finally received a taste of that against the Midlanders.
There is little reason for change. Wolves are without a win and, coupled with Norwich’s visit to Selhurst Park, these are games which a Palace side aiming to finish in mid-take should be seeking to win.
If Hodgson does revert to his more conservative shape and Palace’s performance is akin more to that of Sheffield United away than Aston Villa at home, he will give further credence to those who are critical of his stubbornness.